Will All Settlements Be Protected?

Will All Settlements Be Protected?

U.S. pressure for a “credible” Israeli military redeployment in the West Bank churned debate in Jerusalem furiously this week — but produced no clear result even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on the issue in Paris Thursday.

If only indirectly because of the U.S. pressure, Defense Minister Yitzchak Mordechai and his top aides have drafted a controversial “security interests map” of the territory that would see Israel retain slightly more than half the territory in a final agreement with the Palestinians.

But the draft, which would lay out a formal Israeli stand for the final status of the West Bank for the first time, would leave some 42 out of 144 Jewish settlements outside of Israel’s security consensus, according to Israeli reports. Some 65 to 70 percent of the Jewish settlers on the West Bank would still fall within that consensus. But several notable settlements would not, such as Kiryat Arba, Bet El, and other relatively isolated outposts far from Israel’s population centers.

Mordechai’s plan, first disclosed in the Israeli daily Ha’Aretz, seemed to indicate a shift by key Likud figures away from the party line that all settlements are crucial to Israel. It recalled instead slain Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin’s distinction between “security” settlements that had strategic value and “political” settlements.

The Mordechai plan called for guaranteeing some special status for those settlements beyond Israel’s sovereign borders.

Mordechai devised his plan after other cabinet members demanded that the government set down its clear “red lines” for a final resolution of the West Bank issue before ceding any more land to the Palestinians, as called for in the interim agreement between the two sides. But Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon presented a rival final-status map of his own. And other members of the government vowed to oppose further West Bank redeployments no matter what final-status vision the cabinet settled on.

These ministers decried pressure on Israel to redeploy while the Palestinians have yet to deliver on their security commitments under the Oslo interim accords.

Netanyahu has also deplored Palestinian violations of the accords. But in a conference call with American Jewish leaders last week, Dennis Ross, the administration’s senior Mideast mediator, said there was “no doubt” that Palestinian chief Yasir Arafat’s security forces had “significantly” improved their performance.

The gaps between the United States and Israel, and within the Israeli government itself, boded poorly for progress between Albright and Netanyahu in Paris.

The redeployment, already long overdue, is a key part of the Oslo Accords — one of three such withdrawals Israel promised to make. But just how much land Israel was to cede each time was left to be determined at the time of withdrawal.

Last year, Israel offered to cede less than 3 percent of the West Bank land under its exclusive control for the first of its three withdrawals. But the Palestinian Authority angrily rejected this as paltry. The redeployment being discussed now is to combine that first withdrawal with the second one. The Palestinians have demanded Israel cede at least TK percent of the land now under its exclusive control. Albright was said to be seeking merely a “double-digit” commitment.

After meeting with Netanyahu in London earlier this month and failing to get a clear commitment on the extent or nature of the withdrawal Israel was ready to make, Albright set up this week’s meeting for Netanyahu to clarify the issue. In Israel, press reports claimed that Netanyahu would not present Albright with a map specifying the extent and contours of the redeployment. But he was said to be prepared to tell her Israel would redeploy from “at least” 10 percent of the West Bank land it still fully controls.

Netanyahu reportedly wants an extension until January before presenting Albright with a specific map. And he wants five months to pass after signing an accord on the redeployment before actually implementing it.

In a conference call with the Presidents Conference Monday, Netanyahu said this was to ensure the Palestinians first implement crucial elements of the Oslo Accords that he says they have yet to deliver, including “[revoking] the PLO covenant and security provisions which have not been kept.”

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